Upon first discovery, yoga can feel a bit like sliding the right key into a lock after trying 15 wrong keys. There’s almost a satisfying “clunk” as everything in your life seems to click into place and the door to a more peaceful existence swings open. For a few hours, maybe even days, you find yourself abiding in a perpetual state of undisturbed calm. The actions of others, once irritating, now do nothing to blight your infinite sense of harmony.
But eventually, the angel wings fall off and you come crashing back to earth, humbled by the resurgence of unsettling emotions, like envy and anger. Perhaps you lost your job during the pandemic while your friend landed their dream job and you couldn’t quite summon the praise they deserved. Or, maybe, you lost your composure in a heated political debate online and spent all night stewing in anger. Whatever the trigger, you’ve been locked out of that peaceful place you found on the mat.
Though difficult, maintaining evenness in challenging times is a worthy pursuit; when we’re calm, we experience rational thought and make logical decisions. It’s also one of our biggest obstacles, which is why traditions like yoga and Buddhism have spent centuries contemplating the roots of human suffering and the ways in which we can mitigate it. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali provides a veritable handbook for navigating the pitfalls of the human mind and offers ancient but practical wisdom for the modern yogi, including the four locks and four keys:
“By cultivating attitudes of friendliness toward the happy, compassion for the unhappy, delight in the virtuous and indifference toward the wicked, the mind retains its undisturbed tranquility.” (1.33)
This aphorism asserts that when confronted with people who are happy, unhappy, virtuous or wicked, you might experience inadequacy, contempt, envy or anger. Not as Zen as you’d like? Patanjali gives you these four keys in the form of healthier social attitudes you can adopt that help you cultivate calm in times of trouble. Use these to transform your common knee-jerk reactions into loving actions that promote your own wellbeing and that of those around you.
Friendliness Toward the Happy
This one seems like a no brainer. But, in uncertain times, seeing others express joy can highlight areas where you feel inadequate or unfulfilled. As a result, you may energetically contract and withdraw from social interactions with positive people, which is bad for your health. A growing body of evidence shows that being nice to people is actually good for your own heart, reducing blood pressure, while maintaining active friendships with happy people is good for your health.
The Key: The saying goes you are the company you keep. Seek out positive people and engage in meaningful interactions with them.
Compassion for The Unhappy
There’s no shortage of suffering in the world. When you feel contempt for those who are struggling, perhaps with things that seem small, you turn your unhappy friend into your opponent and place the blame on them for their circumstances. But contempt breeds conflict, and some research suggests it is detrimental to psychological, emotional and even physical health. On the other hand, decades of research conclude that practicing compassion increases longevity and resistance to stress.
The Key: Practice a daily Loving Kindness meditation. Silently offer yourself a short prayer, such as “May I be happy. May I be peaceful. May I be healthy.” After a few breaths, direct this same prayer to a friend, then to a stranger and finally to all beings.
Delight in the Virtuous
Envy is a common response when you perceive someone as being more successful or righteous than you. A 2018 study found that widespread envy is bad for individual mental health, as well as societal health, and produces no measurable motivation for self-improvement. Instead, celebrating others’ achievements can give your own sense of wellbeing a real boost and serve as a positive example to those around you.
The Key: Before bed, make a mental or written list of at least 10 things you are grateful for.
Indifference Toward the Wicked
This one is possibly the toughest pill to swallow. With so much injustice in the world, how can you respond without anger? Perhaps the better question is not how but why. Scientists agree that anger is bad for your heart health, increasing stress hormones like adrenaline. Learning to limit your stress response to life or death situations is crucial to maintaining health and wellbeing in turbulent times.
The Key: Activate the relaxation response by practicing a few minutes of deep breathing each day. Breathe in for five seconds and out for five seconds for fast results.
Originally published in the Winter + Spring 2020-21 issue of CO YOGA + Life Magazine